When I was about 25 years old I spent a summer working as a hospital chaplain. It was a hard job, to say the least. Every day I was confronted with death, grief, brokenness, and suffering. By the end of it I was emotionally drained, and it took me months to recover.
In addition to the demands of the job, there was a second factor that made it hard, and that was my youth. I was a 25 year old who looked like I was 20. I was not the kind of person you would expect when you call for a chaplain. My patients probably anticipated an older gentleman with kind eyes and a white mustache, but instead they got me.
And many times, I could see their disappointment. In fact, one family dismissed me as soon as they clapped eyes on me. They didn’t think I could minister to them.
Over the years, experiences like that have shaped my self-image. And as much as I hate to admit it, the resulting self-image has prevented me from reaching out when I probably should have. Remembering the look of disappointment that day in the hospital, I catch myself now thinking things like this:
I’m too inexperienced to help that mother of five. She probably wants to be friends with an older woman, or a woman with more kids than I have. She probably thinks I have nothing to offer her.
I’m not cool enough to be her friend. She is so glamorous, and she knows just how to do her hair, and I bite my nails and I feel like a dork. She probably wants a friend who is more like her, not a wannabe like me.
We have different skin colors, so I bet she thinks I won’t understand her. She can see right through me and my sheltered self. She probably wants to spend time with someone more like her, someone less….well…white.
This is just a sampling of the many thought processes that cross my mind. Most recently, I’ve been tempted to stop telling people I am a doctoral student, for fear that it’s a barrier in relationships. I’m afraid women can’t relate to me, or don’t want to, or think that I am boring or inaccessible. I would rather hide that part of myself if it means being accepted.
Discussions about self-image generally circle around the problem of insecurity and the inability to accept yourself. But as I look over my own skewed self-image and its consequences, I notice a different pattern that is just as disturbing:
My poor self-image interferes with my obedience.
In Matthew 22 Jesus tells us to love God and to love our neighbors, but my negative self-image can get in the way of that command. Rather than reaching out in love, I trip over my distorted self-perception. My fears of being rejected, or getting in the way, or imposing myself on someone, all keep me from caring for those in need.
In 1 Samuel 16:7 we find this important truth:
People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.
Most of the time, this verse is such an anchor for me. However, I can also be ruled by this verse in an unhealthy way. Like when I assume that people ONLY look at outward appearances.
In truth, most people just want to be loved. Sure, a 70 year old widow doesn’t want a lecture from me about how to do life, but she probably wants a friend who can listen. And I can do that.
Sometimes self-image is about more than disliking your body. Sometimes self-image confronts you with your own unbelief: Do you really believe that God can use you? Do you believe that the same God who became human and ministered to rulers, prostitutes, criminals, and Pharisees can do the same through you?
When it comes to calling, what determines the scope of your vision: the infinite power of God, or a limited view of your self?
For me, too often, it’s the latter. I’m afraid people don’t want my love, because I’m afraid people don’t want me. But at the end of the day it’s not about me, is it? It’s about loving God, and loving my neighbor. God has commanded us to love them both, and I trust He will help each one of us to honor this good, though sometimes scary command.